Press release

How to Read Chinese Paintings to be Discussed in Metropolitan's New Installation

Installation dates: March 1-August 10, 2008
Location: Galleries for Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy

A Chinese saying summarizes the dichotomy between image and text this way:

"Poetry is formless painting 詩是無形畫,
Painting is soundless poetry 畫是無聲詩"

Anatomy of a Masterpiece: How to Read Chinese Paintings, an installation opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 1, 2008, therefore presents visual - rather than textual - analysis of what makes a work of art a masterpiece by juxtaposing Chinese paintings with enlarged photographic details. Focusing on as few as two or three works in each gallery, the exhibition studies 36 paintings and calligraphies from the Museum's collection, drawing attention to telling details of style, composition, or content. Spanning 1,000 years of Chinese art history, from the 8th to the 17th century, the display will examine many of the Museum's finest paintings, including figures, landscapes, flowers, birds, and religious subjects.

Most of the photographs are set discrete distances from the corresponding paintings, but occasionally a small detail may be enlarged into a five-foot-tall color image to demonstrate that "monumentality" is not merely a question of scale. The camera's ability to zoom in and enlarge a detail is intended to sharpen the viewer's discernment and pleasure when returning to the original. Photographs are accompanied by brief captions that highlight their curatorial intention.

The installation also groups related works to demonstrate different artistic approaches to the same subject. For example, four images of pine trees will illustrate the revolutionary transformation that occurred in Chinese painting between the 12th and the 14th century. Details of each painting will demonstrate how a more naturalistic approach to representation gave way around 1300 to an emphasis on self-expressive, calligraphic brushwork. Elsewhere, two 13th-century paintings - an elegant orchid rendered in sumptuous colors and a pristine monochrome depiction of narcissus - will be placed side by side to illustrate the difference between the art of court academicians and that of the scholar-amateurs.

Other meaningful juxtapositions include two works by the recluse-artist Ni Zan (1306-1374), revealing how personal trauma impacted his art. Two images of eagles - one by the 15th-century professional painter Lin Liang (ca. 1416-1480) and the other by the 17th-century Ming loyalist Zhu Da (Bada Shanren, 1626-1705) - will demonstrate how the latter artist turned a courtly subject into a powerful image of dissent and defiance. And three different ways of presenting Buddhist holy men will be on view: an imperially commissioned "iron-wire" drawing dated 1308 by the court painter Wang Zhenpeng (act. ca. 1280-1329), a comic fantasy by the late 16th-century eccentric Wu Bin (active ca. 1583-1626), and a devotional tour de force by the 25-year-old Buddhist monk Shitao (1642-1707).

The illustrated catalogue How to Read Chinese Paintings ($24.95) will accompany the exhibition. It is published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press.

The installation is organized by Maxwell K. Hearn, Curator in the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum.

It will be featured on the Museum's website (

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March 3, 2008

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